Ask the readers: How do I teach my middle-schooler writing?

While we have been impressed with the math and orchestra teaching in public schools where we are, we have been less so with the humanities.  DC1 is not learning how to write.  Zie is not getting many writing assignments, and the one that zie gets are completed in-class with minimal feedback and are mostly creative writing or opinion.  (Add to that the ELA teacher doesn’t exactly show great writing skills in hir own written communications… though I suppose my blog writing doesn’t show the same level of quality as my professional writing so I shouldn’t throw stones.  Still…)

Looking online most of the recommendations seem to be “let them read a lot and write a lot”… well, DC1 already reads a lot.  And, having looked into the “research” that claims that writing cannot be taught, I am less than impressed with the methodology.  I can believe that writing cannot be taught in a single semester, and that grammar instruction without  combined writing instruction doesn’t transfer, but I have a bright 10 year old with a growth mindset for at least another 6 years of instruction, not a fixed-mindset college student for a semester of remediation.   I have to believe that there’s something more systematic that can be done than just having DC1 write about a wedding zie has attended.

I am most interested in teaching DC1 technical writing, especially given that technical writing seems to be completely neglected in hir classes thus far.  As I’m grading my college students’ policy briefs, I find I worry that DC1 doesn’t know how to use topic sentences or craft a paragraph that supports such sentences.  I want hir to learn outlining.  And have the ability to skim an article that has been written with topic sentences and an outline.

I vaguely remember learning in 3rd grade about topic sentences, diagramming sentences in 4th grade, and outlining in 5th grade.  (My juvenilia is actually pretty good… at least compared to the writings of many of my college students…)  A high school history teacher taught the art of transitions (though in college I learned that not all disciplines appreciate them, so I have stopped doing that final step except when writing in more historical sub-fields).  My mom did a lot of teaching me how to fix my grammar, clarity, and so on.  #2 also helped form my writing (her mom is a professional editor).  One of my grad advisors taught me discipline-specific tricks for writing in my main field.

Students at elite private schools get a lot of technical instruction in writing.  The results are impressive.  And I can’t believe it’s just their socioeconomic status or a greater propensity to read that’s the cause of it.  My sister got actual technical writing instruction at the private school she went to for high school and her writing ability and writing enjoyment improved tremendously (despite heavy amounts of constructive feedback).  There are rules that can be taught.

So I’m asking you:  How do I teach writing to my kids?  Is there a curriculum that would be good?  A workbook series or set of prompts that would guide them through the basics of technical writing? A Kumon-style academy that does a particularly good job?  How did you learn how to write?

37 Responses to “Ask the readers: How do I teach my middle-schooler writing?”

  1. Calee Says:

    My daughter did an online class through the John Hopkins gifted program a couple of summers ago that was reading and writing and I know they have a more grammar focused one for your student’s age.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I will look into that. We’re in the Duke TIP system since we live in the South, but they don’t seem to have any classes geared towards the basics, just extra-curriculars. But there’s no reason we can’t look at other regions even if they don’t direct-advertise to us.

  2. noemi Says:

    Lucy Calkins is really amazing but her’s is a big program that might be overwhelming to teach as a parent.

    I too am worried about the writing instruction my kids will get at public schools. Luckily my mom is the most amazing writing teacher and will be retiring next year; I’ve already informed her that she will be teaching my kids how to write.

    She is actually interested in starting a Skype based tutoring program in writing. If you’re still looking for something in a year a too, I’I’ll let you know. She really is an incredible writing teacher.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It looks like our uni library has a lot of her stuff. I will check her out (pun intended)– Thanks!

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Could not get through The Art of Writing. She’s definitely not interested in technical writing; the book seems more about having children baring their souls on paper (she also believes that if what they say is funny and not deep that they’re hiding things– only soul baring seems to have value). The textbook is kind of the opposite of technical writing– the point is buried in personal anecdotes that aren’t particularly direct or helpful. I would much rather a slim volume that is skimmable– you know, like good technical writing should be.

        So she may be wonderful for soul-searching personal writing, but not technical writing.

    • Lady E Says:

      I totally second this recommendation! Best writing curriculum I’ve seen so far. Check out the full Units of Study materials – the Writing Units of Study is designed to complement the Reading Units of Study, and it has a good balance of fiction and non-fiction. It looks like there’s also a writing workbook (Up the Ladder) you could try on your own that might be less intense to do as a parent. Here’s the link:

    • Cloud Says:

      I’m pretty sure that our district’s writing program is based on her program, and I see them teaching the things you indicate are missing at your school, so yes, check her out. I’ll also say that my 4th grader had an assignment to write a pretend travel journal this year that seems to have caused her to stretch and improve her writing skills more than any other assignment. I don’t know if this was because it was a good assignment or because it just really resonated with her and so she focused on it, but that might be something to consider. And if a pretend travel journal doesn’t sound like fun to DC1, maybe there is some other type of pretend writing product that would.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        One of her books came from the uni library today.

        I don’t think coming up with topics will be problematic. It’s the fact that without any tools, topics just aren’t that important. I’m sure many people can teach themselves how to write, but I have to believe it’s more efficient to have heard of a topic sentence or to understand the concept of an outline before writing a ton.

  3. becca Says:

    Does DC1’s school has a newspaper ze could write a technical column for? Or a speech club? (writing for speeches is very good for forcing organization of language, though sometimes it fosters more repetition and alliteration/word play than would be ideal for written communication).
    What are ze’s technical interests these days?

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      No and no. We did sign hir up for competitive writing just so zie could get the practice, but zie didn’t make the first cut for one of the two options (so no training) and was cut early on from the second option.

      And again, I’m not really interested in advice on how to get hir interested in writing or to just to read and write. That’s what the school’s writing program is like already, as far as I can tell. I’m interested in actual technical training. Topic sentences. Paragraph structure. Outlines. Etc. Actual tools.

      I know that’s out of fashion right now, but it’s what DC1 needs. (Also, probably not coincidentally, what my college and grad students need…)

  4. chacha1 Says:

    Wow. I got nothin’. I don’t remember how I learned to write, but I’m pretty sure it was in my public school. We didn’t have a “gifted” program per se, just a couple of classes here and there that were aimed at people with advanced reading skills. We had no AP classes. Four of us in my graduating class were allowed to enter the local college during our high-school senior year, but they stopped allowing that the following year (for, I heard, funding reasons: if enrolled students weren’t on the high-school campus, the school lost state money).

    There were two “tracks” in the general curriculum: college-track, and not. I don’t know what the 65% were taught. The 35% of us in the college track were taught composition. Expository essays, book reviews, poetry. I wrote one very derivative short story as a tween, but I don’t remember if it was a school assignment. Up to age ten all I really remember is vocabulary and spelling exercises.

    I did not learn much if any grammar until I took Spanish (high school) and then French (college). I think it was considered moot if you could express yourself in complete sentences. Actual research, or what I would consider technical writing, was not a thing until I went to college. I can’t remember a single writing assignment in high school that went beyond classroom textbooks as sources. And of course, the Internet didn’t exist for me until I was 30.

    Based on a quick look, the Lucy Calkins program seems pretty damned awesome.

  5. Leigh Says:

    I remember learning this in grade 8 humanities, but my school was really strong in humanities and less so in math and sciences.

  6. Zenmoo Says:

    I do recall doing the mechanics of learning to write (outlining, topic sentences, transitions etc.) at school. I still have a textbook called “Basic English Revisited” that provides a really clear approach to writing. I used it when I tutored boys in high school English (I was an Engineering major and I tutored in a very structured way. No woo-woo about feelings about the text, just make an out line, write a thesis statement, write a topic sentence, add two to three sentences of supporting evidence and a concluding sentence that links to your next paragraph. I think I also might have done a writing course at CTY c1990 between 7th & 8th grade. That could have been where I got the book too.

  7. Angela Says:

    I believe we learned in our middle school gifted program. We used a handbook that definitely covered this – I could describe the handbook but can’t find it under the title I thought it had. I’ll see if I can track down the real title!

  8. anandar Says:

    At my kids’ school they generally start with catchy scaffolds and then taking them away as the kids get the idea, they are pretty easy to find online; an example from 3rd grade is the paragraph “hamburger”: The current one they are working on is “mountain” (story arcs). It starts them on pretty generic work-sheety writing but once they get the idea they can use it more creatively.

    But I don’t think anything beats editing and being edited by excellent writers, which is how I would say I learned the mechanics of writing, primarily in high school. I had a few good teachers who pushed me hard, and I also was paid a (very low) hourly wage by my law professor father to proofread his articles (I’m sure I wasn’t great at it, but he claims it was worth the money even if I only caught half of the errors– I was always reading early drafts). The latter paid off because I had to learn the rules for legal citation and, when I got to college, I already understood that different professions have different citation formats, and that what is right in one may be wrong in another. Helpful in the same way learning a foreign language, or how to code-switch, is helpful.

  9. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    I don’t know how to teach middle-schoolers to write. My son ended up writing well, but with difficulty (we had to get him a writing therapist to get him through high school even with home schooling high school). I do have a textbook that I like to recommend for college students, and that may work well with high school students also: Technical writing and Professional Communication for Non-native Speakers of English, by Huckin and Olsen. Unfortunately it has been out of print for a while, and costs $25 now for a used copy. The good parts are Part 5 “Readability” and Part 6 “Review of Grammar, Style, and Vocabulary Building”. The earlier parts are pretty generic tech-writing textbook.

  10. bogart Says:

    I do not know how I learned to write well, but I did — professors commented on this when I was a college student. Well, years of Latin and other foreign languages (learn: structure/parts of speech) plus tons of reading plus receiving what was undoubtedly good and detailed feedback on my efforts probably explains it. But I couldn’t have explained it (nor could I explain how to write well) until in graduate school (a point by which I was already trying to teach others how to write persuasively but not well equipped to articulate how it was done even though I could do it) until I sat in on a short course offered by George Gopen that led to all kinds of lightbulbs going on in my head. He has a book (or more) and I believe an available article on his approach and I find his approach very helpful. Not sure it would speak to a younger audience, but your LO sounds pretty sharp so it might (plus of course you could help).

  11. Tree of Knowledge Says:

    I teach writing, and I don’t have a recommendation for a course or workbook kind of solution that you mentioned, but I can tell you about my approach. The biggest thing that is effective in my writing classes is to get students to think about audience and make decisions based on what their audience needs to know. So we write in stages, and the first stage is writerly, for them. So this is lots of freewriting and unstructured writing where they just get their thoughts and opinions out. Then they figure out what their main point point is, who they’re writing to, and what they want to accomplish. For technical writing, this would focus on how familiar the readers will be with the topic, what they know, etc. I usually have students write out a paragraph about who their audience is and what they know. Then students figure out structure–what does the reader need to know first, and in my research writing class I have them make claims outlines to organize the logic. From there, they reorganize the early freewriting around this structure, then find the main point of each paragraph and move it to the beginning of the paragraph or write it if it doesn’t exist. Then they work on developing each point–adding evidence, examples, reasoning, etc. Then it’s conclusion, introduction, and revise main point into a thesis (if it’s the kind of essay that requires a stated thesis). Then we look at grammar and usage issues. Again the focus is on audience, so we go over grammar rules, but I have them identify where readers might be confused. Then we figure out the grammar problem and how to fix it. A lot of sentence boundary issues, for example, are indicative of the writer needing to think through an idea more clearly than not knowing what a sentence is.

    So if I were going to help my own kid improve hir writing, I would use this approach, but give a real-world context and something they care about. So a weekly letter to grandma, a blog or tumblr or whatever about something they love, or directions or explanations for younger siblings or cousins. Basically, something that has a clear audience and purpose that will be read by real people.

    I’m curious about this “research” that claims that writing cannot be taught, because that’s bs. If what I suggested sounds helpful, I can can give you some names of composition and rhetoric scholars that write about this and some of the textbooks I use.

  12. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    I’ll check with teacher friends. I had great English teachers but through high school I utterly failed to grasp the basics of good technical writing. It wasn’t until my last year of college that I started to get any sense of mastery of in communicating and much of that was thanks to reading comics and blogging and seeing how consistently my writing didn’t measure up to others.
    Slow learner, I am.

  13. Rosa Says:

    My child’s school focused on reading skills (including stuff like viewpoint, genre, character, purpose, audience, etc) up through third grade, and then his 4th-5th grade class was pretty writing intensive in a way that he hated but really helped his skills.

    My memory is that the schools I went to focused on expressiveness in fiction, memoir & poetry assignments, and technique for nonfiction – I think my first “research paper” was in 4th grade? Choose a topic, do “research” & write a bibliography, take notes, make an outline, write the paragraphs. But that must mean they were teaching sentences and paragraphs earlier and I just don’t remember. But we spent a lot of high school working on 5 paragraph essays.

    Looking at the summer STEM program options today my partner said “there’s no tech writing!” – that’s actually kind of a big gap! Breaking something down into steps and describing them is a really important skill.

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